The perfect Berlioz release in the 400th-anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death is obviously Roméo et Juliette. Unlike Valery Gergiev’s and Robin Ticciati’s, released this year, Andrew Davis’s is a studio recording with the advantage of a live performance at the Barbican Hall immediately before. He uses the standard edition, so not mining the composer’s original plan adopted by John Eliot Gardiner’s ground-breaking Philips recording including Oliver Knussen’s orchestration of the introduction to the Symphony’s second part. Gardiner repeated that version at the Proms this year (the surprise adding to my enthusiastic approval) and has coloured my understanding and reception of the work.
There is no doubt that Sir Andrew has the measure of the published score and he engenders real passion and propulsion at the start, the strings’ fugal quavers ratcheting up the tension of the Capulets’ and Montagues’ turf war – led by the strident viola section – even if gurgling bassoons are barely audible in bars 107 and 109. The Fairfield Hall acoustic as recorded is admirably natural, with a good balance (bassoons aside) between woodwinds, strings and brass. The latter – in the shape of the trombones – take up the tragic demeanour of the tale in the Duke’s sonorous warnings to the family, opening out fully to dramatic effect.
Here Berlioz interposes himself on the tale, by standing outside and having the semi-chorus (sans sopranos) and then the mezzo soloist introduce and gloss on the story, even mentioning Shakespeare’s name. The voices are as well caught as the instruments. Michèle Losier is beautifully captured in the Strophes accompanied by harp arpeggios, and Samuel Boden’s light and fleet tenor fits perfectly the description of Queen Mab, with Davis a steadying hand on the fast tempo marking, just the right side of leggierio without tumbling out of control. Then the orchestra takes over for the rest of the first disc, save for tenors and basses wondering where Romeo is, between the ball and balcony scene.
This forty-minute stretch represents my favourite parts, and Davis doesn’t disappoint. From the hints of the ball gently intruding on Romeo’s solitude, via the helter-skelter of the Capulet celebrations amidst which Romeo falls for Juliet and his escape into darkness where his fantasy turns to reality in his overhearing Juliet and her similar thoughts: this is musical heaven. What if Queen Mab – having entered Romeo’s mind with thoughts of love – disrupts the mood, hinting at the fickleness of existence, hope and love? The curious ending of the Scherzo, with antique cymbals adding an eerie timbre to the breakdown of the music, is just one of Berlioz’s many innovations.
Shorn of Berlioz’s original (unpublished) intention for a choral introduction to the second part, we rejoin the action after Juliet has taken Friar Laurence’s potion to render her comatose. Taken as dead, Berlioz follows Garrick’s novelty and inserts a funeral cortege, with the choir (this time omitting mezzos) as grieving Capulets mournfully intoning, Davis encapsulating the constrained emotion before disintegrating into stuttering.
In bursts Romeo to find his lover lifeless; the unbuttoned acoustic accommodating the ballyhoo, then replaced by a succession of spare chords, a grief-laden sinuous theme, over tragic bass pizzicato: his ‘Invocation’ to Juliet’s beauty as he takes the poison. The slow succession of rising clarinet pitches represent Juliet’s awakening, and there’s a sudden outpouring of horror as the situation becomes clear, while Berlioz saves his most extraordinary palette of tricks to describe the lovers’ demise, the oboe presenting Juliet’s last breath.
The Finale consists of the Capulets’ and Montagues’ discovery of the tragedy, and Friar Laurence’s explanation and his ‘Serment’, ensuring agreement that the families will foreswear animosity. David Soar is commanding as Laurence. Davis adopts a curious and unmarked slackening of tempo between bars 336 and Berlioz’s rallentando at bar 353, that momentarily disrupts the flow of the music, but the conclusive ‘Serment’ is tremendously done; Berlioz at his most ceremonially triumphant, all agreeing to be “amis pour toujours” – friends forever.
But for Davis that’s not the end, with two excerpts from Les Troyens. The ‘Trojan March’ – heard in Berlioz’s 1863 concert off-cut without chorus – is suitably rousing, with horns and brass revelling in Berlioz’s spotlight. The ‘Royal Hunt and Storm’ does include the choral vocalise and leaves this set of lovers, Dido and Aeneas, with a moment of ecstatic happiness, their tragedy left to play out at another time. And there’s more exceptional horn playing.
For anyone with a Shakespearean or Berliozian bent, this Chandos recording is a shoe-in for a Christmas present.